Evergrey – Sailing the AtlanticThursday, 14th March 2019
It’s no secret that over the past twenty years or so, probably this scribe’s favorite metal band is the one you are currently reading about: Evergrey. What’s made them so monumental to enjoy has been their approach to the progressive/power metal movement, incorporating a multi-layered sound with narrative aspects, layers of keyboards and guitars, plus tones and feel that can move from progressive rock to even extreme metal when called for. From their debut album The Dark Discovery on through to their latest studio effort The Atlantic, you can pretty much guarantee they are going to take their audience on a trip they’ll never forget – full of emotional and musical resonance, rich with depth and context.
Shortly after the release of the record we were able to talk to bassist Johan Niemann – who seemed genuinely pleased with the chart success and reception The Atlantic has received. You’ll learn more about the vibe and songwriting for the record, his thoughts on his bass playing throughout Evergrey, future hopes for touring and the less glamourous aspects the average follower may not think about – plus how it is to have a brother also in the metal scene.
Dead Rhetoric: The Atlantic is the newest Evergrey album – your third with the group. Tell us about the songwriting and recording sessions for this release – and were there key moments that you remember during the process that you knew you were developing something very special this go around?
Johan Niemann: Well, we write the material pretty much the same way – as long as I’ve been in the band at least. When we gather ideas, it runs the whole gamut from someone coming in with just a couple of chords and having this vibe going with these two chords, is it good enough to build upon. From that very basic thing, to almost having a complete song. Both Jonas and Tom come in with pretty elaborate demos. While Rikard came in with “Departure” and “Currents”, but with “Currents” he only had the keyboard melody and the chorus, that was pretty much it. So we built upon that to try to make it a song- everyone was very much involved in every step of the way for the songwriting of this record.
Dead Rhetoric: There are numerous sections on the record where you showcase your abilities on the bass (“A Secret Atlantis” and “Departure” especially) – where do you see your role within the band and your approach for Evergrey?
Niemann: It has definitely grown, especially sonically for this record. I am a lot louder on this record than I thought I would be, which is nice obviously. I haven’t been much of a songwriter in this band at least so far. Because the other guys, they write so much good material. I do come in with my five cents worth of maybe we should try this, maybe we should try that. With song structures, ideas for guitar parts, everyone has their thing that they are good at, you know? I’m not much of a songwriter yet, at least – but I do have other qualities, I hope.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you think it’s important for you to lock into not only what the drummer is playing within the band, but also enhance what the keyboards and guitars are doing?
Niemann: Oh yes, I love that. It could be seen as the easy way out to just play as simple as you possibly can. But if a certain section of a song calls for that, then absolutely I’ll do that- I have no problem playing only the root of whatever chord is there. I do like to find that middle ground between the kick drum and the guitars, or the keyboard part if the riff is really cool, and just try to find some middle ground between the two. I really like that, it makes it fun for me and it makes it fun for everybody else too. There’s some movement in the low end, instead of just having low root notes – you could have that on the keyboards or program it. I like finding good parts.
Dead Rhetoric: Did you know as Tom was working on the lyrics that he would be pouring his soul out on the page discussing the break-up of his marriage? It just feels like through his anguish and catharsis that he does his best to reach into the heads and hearts of all Evergrey listeners… how do you feel about his work as a vocalist on this album?
Niemann: I mean, I’ve always liked Tom’s vocals. I think he’s an exceptional singer, he doesn’t get enough credit for it. I think for this record he’s outdone himself. Both lyrically and his actual singing abilities. He’s done things on this record that I’ve never heard him do before. I did not know going into this record that it was going to be about what the album is actually about. I wasn’t aware of it at that time- it was actually a little later in the process that he spilled the beans about that. You can actually see it going back a couple of records that maybe things weren’t always great, but that’s life too, you know? It has its ups and downs, he writes about his life.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe Jacob Hansen brings with his mixing abilities that makes Evergrey sound so outstanding?
Niemann: He’s so good. Especially on this record – he also outdid himself. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. We seem to have very good communication with Jacob- and he was actually in the studio while we were recording bass and drums. He knew what we wanted, and the tones that we were getting while we were tracking. We wanted it more raw, dirtier, more analog – instead of trying to polish everything and make everything with a superbly clean and sterile environment, we wanted it more wood basically. He understood what we were going for, and he has a great set of ears. I’m very impressed. It’s not just bass, guitars, drums, and vocals – there are a lot of tracks, keyboards going here and there, layers of guitars – there is a lot of information to sift through.
Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the artwork from Giannis Nakos for the new record? Does the band prefer to seek out different artists with every album to see what they can create that may be distinct and unique for Evergrey?
Niemann: That’s one part of the process I haven’t been very aware of. What the process actually looks like – but obviously it really fits the music I think. I like the overall color as well, the warm, yellow-ish (hue). You would think if you have a record called The Atlantic, the color of the cover would be blue. We didn’t go that route, and I’m happy because it sticks out. You can go to a record store and see a lot of dark records, blue and red colors. There aren’t a whole lot of yellow records, so it kind of sticks out a little bit. But he’s an amazing artist, and I hope we can work with him again.
Dead Rhetoric: Did it surprise you how well the album has been received, entering a lot of national charts?
Niemann: Oh yeah! I didn’t expect that at all. It’s weird- when we are writing and recording, we are the only ones who listen to our stuff. We are in this creative little headspace that we are doing for ourselves, we want to be about this, have this kind of vibe and everyone is pulling in the same direction. We write for ourselves to make ourselves fire up on all cylinders- we have no idea how people are going to respond to that. We figure if we like it, and we love what we are doing, that energy translates to the listener. People seem to like the other records too.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you hold yourselves as musicians to a higher level of standards when it comes to recording and performing now than you did say decades previous? It just seems to me that lately a lot of the veteran bands in many metal genres are putting out some of their best work to date – which usually is not the case if we look at the history of the genre…
Niemann: Oh yeah. Exactly. It can be, when you’ve done things for a while, you can get kind of tired and jaded after a while. If you get to that point, maybe you should take a break at least. We still have fun, we are still learning stuff. I find new things on the instrument, still. Which is great, I love just sitting there and playing to find combinations of notes I’ve never played before. As songwriters you can always find new avenues to try, new territories to explore musically and I think we’ve opened some doors on these past three records that hopefully we can walk through going forward.
We do hold ourselves to a pretty high standard. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves with something that’s going to be around for a long time.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you believe is left to accomplish when it comes to your music career – or with Evergrey in general?
Niemann: I think we have a lot of stuff to accomplish. There are avenues songwriting-wise that we would like to go down, definitely. We are still talking about the possibility of doing, maybe not totally an acoustic record because I don’t think that would be interesting for people, but to have more acoustic instruments at least and have that be a bigger part of the record. That’s one thing we can do that people seem to enjoy. Evergrey has never been to Japan for instance, so that’s one thing that we really want to do. I’ve been there, but the other guys haven’t – they’ve been to Australia, and that’s one place I haven’t gone to. There’s still places to play that we haven’t been to. We haven’t been to South America for a while, and things are starting to look up in that region. Still after all these years it’s still fun to tour, and it’s fun to play new music for people who actually want to hear it.
It is a blessing that this far into our career we are getting bigger, getting better, and to have people still want to hear new music, that’s incredible. It would be pretty easy for a band that has been doing this for quite a while to go out and do the best of set, or this old record from start to finish, to rest on your laurels. We bow our heads and are very thankful for the consistent support.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you like to do in your spare time away from music as far as hobbies, activities or interests when you have the free time to do so?
Niemann: I have a five-year old daughter. She takes up a lot of what one would think would be free time. I don’t have a lot of free time. I love my family, so I’m not complaining.
Dead Rhetoric: What are some of your favorite Evergrey songs to play live these days – especially when looking at the deep catalog of tracks available? Are there certain ones that you know will just set the right mood and tone with the audience?
Niemann: Coming from me, one of my favorite songs to play is “Mark of the Triangle”. I love that song from In Search of Truth. That always works for me, and people seem to really respond to that one. That’s one of the older ones I really like playing. It has a bit of everything – the moody, atmospheric verses and then the tempo, screamer of a chorus.
Dead Rhetoric: How does your family feel about having two musicians who’ve accomplished a decent amount of touring and recording in their lives like you and Kristian have?
Niemann: Obviously, my mom is really proud- and my dad was too, before he passed away. They are proud of what we’ve accomplished. When we played together in the same band, they were a bit worried when we would fly to South America or the United States – what if the plan crashes, we lose both of our sons? Okay- that’s a fair thing, but that’s not going to happen – it happens to other people. They did something right.
When we played in the same band, we had the same issues. Now that I’m in Evergrey and he’s in Sorcerer, we can view it from two different perspectives, but it’s still the same. We have the same issues in both bands with the rest of the music business. The promoters, the concert arrangers, the practical side of things. It’s the same for everybody, which is comforting and nice to hear. You can get the short end of the stick, and it does happen to other people too.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you think is hard for the average fan to understand about the band’s activities, day in and day out, that you wish you could help shed some light on?
Niemann: People in general seem to have this idea that playing in a band is glamorous. That we are partying all day – what? No we are not. I thought so too when I was a kid- I wanted to play in a band, partying, have private jets. Limos – no. I have been in a limo once, and it didn’t work (laughs). It’s a lot of hard work, and a lot of waiting around for stuff to happen. Especially on tour. You would think that being on a tour bus is a lot of fun. It can be- but it’s a lot of waiting, a lot of traveling, sitting around. You are waiting to get there, and once you get to the venue, you are waiting to get the stuff set up, and you wait for soundcheck, and once that’s done, you wait for dinner- you are waiting for stuff to happen. If you can’t handle that, you are not in the right place.
I’m in a band with four comedians, so we do have a lot of fun. It wouldn’t be worth it at all otherwise.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you personally handle setbacks or failure – has there ever been a time when an apparent failure or setback set you up for a future win or better outcome in your life?
Niemann: I’m sure. One major setback was we played in Rome years ago, and we had our trailer with all the equipment broken into, stuff was stolen. We basically did a couple more shows, and the rest we had to cancel. We borrowed equipment to finish off a few dates. That obviously sucked, but it is what it is. Stuff happens, and you either bury your head in the sand or you just go, okay- that was that, and if there is something we can do about it, we do that, or if we can’t, we move on. Either you move on, or you don’t and you stay home. It is what it is, that’s the best thing I can say.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda to support The Atlantic over the next 12-18 months?
Niemann: We are going out with Kamelot in two weeks for 12 dates supporting them in Europe. We continue for another five weeks of our own headlining tour. We have festivals in the summer, a few. We are looking at going to North America for a tour in the fall, because we are doing ProgPower this year and hopefully we can manage a tour around that time. After that, I think the agenda is talking about another European tour headlining, and sometime this year do a South American tour as well. Whenever that will fit in, that’s what we are looking at.